Research has shown that cats have healing powers. Not only does petting a cat lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of heart attack, the cat’s purr can actually heal muscles, tendons and bones. Those of us who share our lives with cats don’t need research studies to prove that a purring cat in our lap or by our side can make all the world’s problems seem a little bit less daunting.
Therapy cats share these healing powers with a wider audience than just their human family members. They bring comfort and joy to nursing home residents and others who are unable to keep their own pets. They provide a much needed break in the daily routine for facility residents and staff alike, along with the special kind of love that can only come from a cat.
A brief history of therapy pets
Pet Partners, formerly known as The Delta Society, the only national organization to register cats as therapy animals, began its Therapy Animal Program, which includes dogs, cats and other domesticated species, in 1991. “Many people in hospitals and nursing homes are ‘cat people,’ and they benefit from the variety cats provide in our Therapy Animal Program,” says Bill Kueser, VP of Marketing at Pet Partners. “Since some people are afraid of dogs or are allergic to dogs, having cats visiting allows more people to benefit from positive human-animal interactions.” Liz Palika, the founder of Love on a Leash, an organization that provides training, evaluation and certification procedures for therapy pets, estimates that her organization certified about a dozen cats to date, and about 2000 dogs since its inception in 1984.
The most famous therapy cat is probably Oscar, the subject of the book Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa, MD. Oscar, who lives in a nursing home in Rhode Island, seems to instinctively know when a resident is about to die, and stays with the patient for his or her final hours. Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, found a common thread in interviews with family members of patients and nursing home staff: over and over, they told him how much Oscar’s presence has meant to them and their families during their time at the nursing facility. Oscar provided comfort and quiet, gentle support when nothing or noone else could.
Oreo brightens lives at a memory care facility
Carla Graham and her cat Oreo volunteer for Fairfax Pets on Wheels, a Northern Virginia organization that connects pets with people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Graham, who had been volunteering for the group with her two dogs, knew Oreo would make a perfect therapy cat the first time she met him. “He was so calm and relaxed, and he would just lay on my lap for hours,” says Graham. When one of Graham’s dogs became too old to continue the visits, she decided to start taking Oreo instead.
Oreo and Graham visit Arden Courts, a memory care facility in Annandale, Virginia, once a week. A typical visit lasts about an hour. Residents get to pet and hold Oreo. Interacting with the cat brings back memories of pets the residents had throughout their lives. “It’s so rewarding to see their eyes light up,” says Graham. Connecting with Oreo is a wonderful way to engage residents in the moment. The act of holding and petting a cat may trigger memories in patients who are otherwise incapable of consciously recalling past life events. “I feel that our visits bring a bright spot to their lives,” says Graham, and the pride in her special cat is evident in her voice.
Flash brings smiles to nursing home residents
Flash became a therapy cat after his owner, Jaetta Hall, entered him in cat shows in the household pet category. She quickly realized how much he loved people. He enjoyed himself at the shows, but Hall felt that he didn’t get enough of a chance to interact with people, so she looked into getting him certified as a therapy cat. He passed his certification with Healing Paws, the Indianapolis, Indiana chapter of Love on a Leash, with flying colors, and now visits the Century Villa nursing home in Greentown, Indiana, every week. “He takes his job very seriously,” says Hall. “The day that we go to therapy he gets so excited and paces the floor until we are ready to leave!”
Jaetta found that taking Flash in a stroller works well. During a typical visit, Jaetta and Flash will go from room to room to see which residents might want Flash to stop in for a pet and a cuddle. Flash has quite a fan club at the facility, and Jaetta makes sure that they always visit with his regular admirers. Flash is allowed on a resident’s bed if they request it; other times, he stays in his stroller. “It’s a hard concept for a cat to understand,” says Hall, “but he knows not to get up on a bed unless he’s invited.“
Flash soaks up the attention he gets and can’t get enough petting. “Petting him relaxes the residents and provides a break from being lonely,” says Hall. When Flash visits the home’s common areas, his popularity is readily apparent: even bingo games will be interrupted in favor of fussing over Flash. Regina Poe, Community Relations Coordinator at Century Villa, is one of Flash’s biggest fans. “Animals offer unique companionship to residents,” says Poe. “Having a cat visit is a special experience.” Flash’s visits don’t just help the residents, they also help the nursing home staff. “Any therapy that alleviates anxiety, stress and tension in our residents also helps staff provide better care,” says Poe.
Therapy cats make a difference
The difference therapy cats make in the lives of those they visit may not always be measurable by scientific means, but even medical professionals don’t doubt the difference these sweet-tempered cats make. Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, is quoted on the Pet Partner’s website as saying “a pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits.” With the soothing sound of their purr, their soft fur, and the unconditional love they bring, therapy cats may just be the most effective medication ever invented: medication for the cat lover’s soul.
Photo of Oreo at top of post by Carla Graham, photo of Flash by Jaetta Hall. This article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Cat Fancy magazine under the title Healing Purrs.